Take three

The Sunday Times (UK)
Published: April 26, 2015

With a trio of big films out at the same time, he is the hottest thing to come out of Belgium — ever

For some weeks now, Britain’s billboards have been valiantly struggling with Matthias Schoenaerts’s name: all those vowels spelt out on adverts for Suite Française, released last month; A Little Chaos, earlier this month; and next up, Far from the Madding Crowd. In Thomas Vinterberg’s luscious take on the Thomas Hardy novel, released on Friday, Schoenaerts’s Gabriel Oak shadows Carey Mulligan’s impetuous Bathsheba. Not that he has seen any of the media blitzkrieg: the Belgian actor, 37, has only just arrived at his London hotel for the film’s premiere. “I’m like the Space Invader all of a sudden,” he says, miming a spaceship hovering over us all.

It’s true. The gods of showbiz, aka the release schedulers, have conspired to make this the year of Schoenaerts. The signs have been there for a while: there was his role as a farmer high on cattle steroids in the Belgian drama Bullhead; and, his proper breakout, winning over Marion Cotillard in Jacques Audiard’s gritty love story Rust and Bone. After his current sequence of romances, he presents a new French film, Maryland, at Cannes; then he will be seen in A Bigger Splash, directed by Luca Guadagnino, who made I Am Love; and Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, with Eddie Redmayne. And as soon as Cannes is over, he will start on Lewis and Clark, HBO’s epic frontier drama. “It’s Bullhead that kicked the door in,” he says, “and Rust and Bone put me in the elevator.” To extend the metaphor further, he has now gate-crashed the party, made out with the host, and is scoffing all the canapés.

Like a selection of modern stars who blend mainstream appeal with proper class — Michael Fassbender, Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac — Schoenaerts seems to have waited and waited for his moment, and now everything is here at once. Is he a late bloomer? “No, no! It’s perfect. I wouldn’t have been ready — not only personally, but artistically.” Schoenaerts’s calling card is an unfettered physicality, bulk in body, voice and gaze. “I read that in so many interviews,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, hey, what an animal’.” Does that bother him? “Well, there are different kinds of animals,” he reasons. “If they think of me as a little pig, then maybe not. But if they think of me as a tiger, I’m like, yeah man. I love to be a tiger!” Schoenaerts early adopters know he can deliver intensity on screen, but it has hardly ever been of the jovial kind. In life, though, a tiger, or Tigger-like, energy prevails. The Schoenaerts who bounds into the room is freshly shaved and tanned, his cropped hair lightly gelled. In his grey shirt, tight swimming-poolblue jeans and black trainers, and with his extraordinary face — defined by that nose, a ski slope of Olympic proportions — he’s an early Bruegel let loose in Ibiza. His fluent English is really American, a mile-a-minute rat-a-tat peppered with “man”s, “mom”s and “wanna”s. He makes for pleasant, if bewildering, company. As he writhes about in his chair, rattling on about the “synergetic creational process” that is film-making, accenting it all with comedy sounds and comedy faces, I keep being reminded that Belgium’s best-known export, bar colonialism and waffles, is the Smurfs.

In Far from the Madding Crowd, though,Schoenaerts is deadly serious. Oak is the first suitor to chase Bathsheba; once rejected, he must spend most of the film tending sheep and looking stoic while she makes a series of silly decisions. Schoenaerts does this very well, although he, like all his co-stars, dodges an authentic Wessex twang. How come? He can’t quite remember (hmm). He is, though, enchanted by Gabriel Oak.

“Gabriel represents values that I admire in people. I think it’s important — without being moralistic about it — but cinema to me is ‘OK: what do we share with people? What do we tell about humanity?’ Because, to some extent, audiences always identify with, or mirror, what they see on the screen. And I think, well, it’s pretty good that people would mirror Gabriel Oak. I did that as well,” he admits. And he is particularly fond of Gabriel’s advice to Bathsheba: “Do what you know is right.” Schoenaerts, by the way, has an actorphilosopher bent that could, elsewhere, be unbearable, but with him it is goofy, eccentric, genuine. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t want to be cinema’s latest high-end hunk, but neither is he embarrassed by the heft for which directors seek him out. He is sports-mad, keen on soccer, boxing, the gym — so bulking up for Bullhead wasn’t much of a stretch. “You could say it’s just a form, but to me, it’s not just a form. Because by doing it, and spending so much time trying to get there, it really affects your DNA,” he announces. “It changes your structure — your emotional structure, everything.” He warms to his subject. “It’s mind, body and soul, and I don’t make a distinction. It’s the holy trinity. Mom, son and dad.”

That metaphor is intriguing. Schoenaerts’s own trinity of mum, son and dad was by no means a conventional one. His father, Julien Schoenaerts, was also an actor — “He’s still considered the greatest theatre actor ever in Belgium,” the son says. The parents split when Matthias was a baby, and his mother was left to raise him alone. Matthias then didn’t see his father for seven years, until Julien reappeared on the scene — upon which he did what any normal actor would do and staged a two-hander, just him and his son: an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Matthias, of course, was the prince, lost, lonely and wise. “It’s crazy. It’s beautiful. If I think of it, it’s like a movie. And then what comes after that — that needs to be like In Search of Lost Time,” he chuckles. “You can’t get that in a movie.”

What did come after that is a bit of a mystery. Regarding Julien, Matthias tends to say in interviews that it’s “complicated”, and I get this, too; I get “complicated” four times. Julien seems to have been a bit of an uncontrollable soul, but the family seemed truly reconciled by the time the elder Schoenaerts died in 2006. His son is full of praise for him now.

“Many complicated things happened, and it never killed the love. And I don’t mean that in a sentimental way. I mean that because the love my mom, or me, or him, had to put on the table was the courageous kind of love. It’s, like, unconditional; sticking to someone no matter what. And you have to be really brave for that. Really brave. It’s not for weak people, trust me.” His favourite film-maker is David Lynch, and his favourite Lynch film is The Straight Story, where a stubborn, untameable old man treks across the Midwest on a lawnmower, on a quest to reconcile with his brother. “The male lead really makes me think of my dad,” the younger Schoenaerts says. “And apart from that, it’s just a wonderful film.”

As for him, as he grew up, he alternately hoped to be a footballer and a film-maker, before finally enrolling at acting school at 21. He lives with his girlfriend, a student, in Antwerp. “It’s important for me to have my people around. And there are not so many — it’s not like I have a billion friends. If you have a billion friends, you need to ask yourself some questions, because something is definitely wrong.” His nomadic lifestyle suits him. “I don’t like to belong anywhere, you know what I mean? I don’t like that idea.”

And yet — wouldn’t he like children? “Hell, yeah!” he flips back. “Oh my God, yes please! I’m gonna have kids in the next three to four years.” He loves little children, so much so, he wants to hug them in supermarkets. “That’s the only moment I’m happy that people recognize me,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Hey, can I have a picture?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah — but gimme the baby! Gimme the baby!’ ” Clearly, the next few years will be crucial for Schoenaerts. And he has yet more he wants to achieve — he has several screenplays bubbling over in his mind. “I’m so scared of having to die, and to say, man, I didn’t even do half the things I wanted to. That makes me wake up in the morning. Like, you wanna sleep? Don’t sleep, man, wake up! Go live!” I try telling him that perhaps it won’t matter if he doesn’t manage it all — the win is in the attitude, surely? He’s not convinced. “My biggest ambition is to live fully,” he announces. “I really, really wanna get to the depth of life, in the purest sense of the word.” I have no idea if he’ll get there. But Lord, I’m sure he’ll dig, and dig, and dig. c Far from the Madding Crowd is out on Friday

© 2015 The Sunday Times (UK) | Written by Louis Wise | No copyright infringment intended.